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Denver of Old
From Pompeii to the World Trade Center: A review of Ghosts of Vesuvius
Paleontology On the Shelf
Over time, all landscapes shift, and Denver, Colo., in the Denver Basin, is
no exception. Permian sands gave way to a wide ancient sea in the Jurassic and
the Cretaceous. Not long after the mass extinction at the Cretaceous/Tertiary
boundary, 65 million years ago, the area was covered with tropical rainforests.
At two different points in time, the Rocky Mountains rose. Many more environments
have come and gone, leaving behind a setting suited to todays thriving
and ever-growing metropolis.
To illustrate the varied past of this region and the power of geologic processes through time, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has put together an exhibit, consisting of several landscape paintings created by local artists. Reproductions of several of the paintings are also on display in Colorado state parks. Additionally, the museum has published a companion book called Ancient Denvers: Scenes from the Past 300 Million Years of the Colorado Front Range, in which the paintings are published alongside detailed descriptions of the landscapes and a map to guide you along your tour of the geologic remnants of Denver.
See Geotimes in print for images from the exhibit.
Ghosts of Vesuvius: A New Look at the Last Days of Pompeii, How Towers Fall, and Other Strange Connections
by Charles Pellegrino.
If you want to learn some new things about the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius
and its destruction of Pompeii, you can read Ghosts of Vesuvius, but
only if you exercise great patience. The author doesnt start to get down
to business on Vesuvius until page 140. Even then, its only a toe in the
door. A better title for the book would be An Amazing Autobiography of
This book is part of the catastrophe genre currently in vogue. A problem for the writer of such a book is that most catastrophes are quickly over. An author must therefore have a prologue and epilogue with which to better understand the event and to fill a few hundred pages. James Michener, when he was writing about Alaska and not catastrophes, began with cavorting beavers. Pellegrino can claim the prize by starting with the Big Bang. Actually, he doesnt start there. He works his way back in time from A.D. 79 to t = 0 and then rockets forward again. Einstein is referred to as a descendent of early protons. This first progression backwards is the most orderly part of the book. After that, Pellegrino travels through time at will.
Words that come to mind to describe the book are creative, original, self-congratulatory and disorganized. Seldom have I seen an author play such a large role in his voyage into history. We see the author as a teenager, precociously propounding the theory that life could evolve in oceans beneath the ice of cold planets. We hear him conversing with his good friends Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Stephen J. Gould on matters of cosmic import. Stephen Hawkins is heard to opine about a theory of spirituality by Pellegrino and colleagues, as well as a Pellegrino-and-Sagan theory of the universe. We watch Pellegrino explore the Titanic and illuminate the physics of the event. We follow him as he follows Haraldur Sigurdson through Pompeii. Finally, we accompany him as he purportedly solves new mysteries concerning the final moments and fall of the World Trade Center in New York City.
The main components of the book, besides the autobiography, are embellished science and embellished history. I hated the embellished science and enjoyed some of the embellished history. Were I a historian, perhaps it would have been the other way around. Some of the science is blatantly wrong. For example, silicon is not Earths most abundant ion (oxygen is), and subducted carbonate does not turn into erupted lava.
There are, however, some real gems of thought in the book. Its helpful to appreciate, for example, how much Vesuvius saved through destruction and what impact there was on our culture when first the towns of Pompeii and then Herculaneum were unearthed. People could see how advanced the Romans were and realize how much had to be reinvented after the Dark Ages. The discoveries inspired architecture, philosophy and governance. We should recall that the American creed e pluribus unum was adopted from the Roman Empire. Vesuvius also fossilized evidence of the rapid spread toward Rome of the new Christian religion.
In philosophizing, Pellegrino ranges from the profound to the silly. It is interesting to consider that our civilization could fall apart and that future civilizations might marvel at how close we came to real achievement. But some may question the basis of his assertion that the American empire is the most benevolent in the history of the universe.
For entertainment, Pellegrino relies too much on imagining and repeating the horrors of 3-second vaporization of bodies at Pompeii and the more drawn out agony of victims of September 11. And what is the link he makes between Vesuvius and the World Trade Center? For both events, he explains, column collapse generated pyroclastic/building-clastic flows! Again and again we see the pyroclastic cloud rush towards us or hear the building collapsing upon us.
A unique mix of brilliant insight and egregious errors, the book is a self-absorbed attempt at a view that is universal in time and space that includes a pinch of nationalism and repetitive attempts to shock the reader. To modify the motto of a challenging ski area in Vermont, read it if you can.
Being provoked is healthy, sometimes. In this case, Im unsure. A scan of the Web revealed some reviewers enthralled with Pellegrinos brilliance and one nauseated by his self-absorption. Oh, and apparently theres a movie coming. The most similar book Ive read, Simon Winchesters Krakatoa, has a much higher signal-to-noise ratio.
It wasnt a waste of time reading this book. I learned some things. I got angry about other things. The book did cause me to think and to look at some things differently. I will not read another mistitled autobiography by Pellegrino, but if someone writes his biography, I will read it with interest to see how faithfully it follows Ghosts of Vesuvius.
No Turning Back: The Life and Death of
Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities: The
Causes of Mass Extinctions
Tony Hallam has debated with Walter Alvarez, Dave Raup and others, who
are confirmed catastrophists, about the impact of impacts. A paleontologist
and expert in sea level changes from 590 million years ago to the present-day,
Hallam has co-authored several books on mass extinctions and why they
happen, but his most recent, Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities,
is a solo venture, intended as a layperson-friendly, pocket-sized guide
to the mass-extinction debate.
Our Final Hour: A Scientists Warning:
How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankinds
Future in This Century On Earth and Beyond
Sir Martin Rees, the distinguished royal astronomer from Cambridge University,
turns his gaze from the stars to planet Earth a practice he notes
is common to those who study cosmology. His wide-ranging commentary hits
designer-baby genetics, nuclear power and the latest wave of extinctions
on the planet that are human-induced. He also notes that past futurists
have had difficulty in making accurate assessments of the next big thing
a forward-looking committee writing in Scientific American
in the 1930s completely missed the promise of antibiotics, for example,
which had been in existence for almost a decade by then. Though alarming,
Sir Martins meditations are engaging, even if his prose sometimes
bumps and his references seem esoteric.
Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big
Macro-history, big time whatever you wish to call it, David Christian attempts to put humans and their history into the context of the longer time periods of Earth. He briefly visits the geologic history of the planet, and then devotes the rest of his voluminous text to the evolution and development of modern humans, with forays into their effects on the planet and each other. With suggested readings and literature cited, this 600-plus-paged introduction reads like a friendly, poetic textbook perhaps to be expected when reading about big history.